Monday, November 16, 2009

Back to School: Idealism in the slums


I last read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn back in the 11th grade. I remember absolutely loving it, to the point that it immediately and has subsequently held the top position on my list of favorite books. But junior year of high school was seven years ago, and I couldn’t remember exactly why I loved it so much, so it was time for a re-read. I was a bit nervous that it wouldn’t hold up to my memory, but I am happy to say that it was just as good the second time around.

Betty Smith’s classic is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, a young girl living in Brooklyn in the pre-WWI 20th century. It’s the Brooklyn you can only read about—an immigrant population, tenement housing in Williamsburg, penny-pinching, and all the stores “down the street” (such as, “Francie, run to the butcher/apothecary/grocer down the street…”). Francie possesses the perfect blend of her mother Katie’s realism and her father Johnny’s idealism. Katie works as a janitor in their apartment building in exchange for rent, and Johnny is a singing waiter with a bit of a drinking problem. Along with her brother Cornelius (“Neely” for short), Francie struggles to remain idealistic amongst poverty and the normal ups and downs of life.
This was the first story I ever read that really got me into a style of novel that I love; it’s not so much a book with a plot, rather a portrait of a life and a time. To enjoy this kind of novel, you must love the characters, and it is easy to love the Nolans. Once I started reading, I immediately remember why I loved it so much; Francie is one of the only characters I’ve ever read that I immediately understand. I get her, and I get her way of thinking. She’s thoughtful, in a contemplative way. She has a kind of optimistic realism about her, and she finds joy and beauty in the smallest things. Her character perfectly illustrates what it means to grow up. 
Rather than rattle on and on, I’m going to keep this review short and leave you with some of the passages that exemplify what I mean and why I love this book. Out of 31,841 ratings on Goodreads, its average rating is 4.24 out of 5. That says something. Just read it.

“Don’t say that. It’s not better to die. Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there from the grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

“Oh, I wish I was young again when everything seemed so wonderful!”

“Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be happy; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well-dressed. Let me be sincere- be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”


farmlanebooks said…

I have heard about this book, but didn't really know what it was about before. Thank you for filling me in! I'll keep an eye out for a copy as it sounds like a book worth reading.

Jenny said…

This sounds so good! So I'm assuming you loved it as much as you did back then?
It's funny because I literally wrote this book down TODAY on my little post-it of books I really need to just buy, haha!

Salvatore said…

I've owned this book for ages and haven't picked it up. It's probably lost in my parents' attic now…